The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

A mere seven years after Britpop exalted itself out of a reason to exist, we think we already know it all, that even now there is sufficient perspective to view Britpop, be it with a hug or a sneer. In fact we’re still trying to catch up with two decades ago, still haven’t made your minds up about the Associates or Haircut 100, never mind Blur or Oasis. A Britpop retrospective kiss or howl? Leave it until 2016, when hindsight and subsequent history have combined to put it in a remotely interesting position for conjecture.

Sneer? I can’t sneer, not at Britpop, because it happened – as, never let it be forgotten, did rave at its hooligan heights, happy hardcore, jungle (never drum ‘n’ bass), post-rock, trip hop, 2-step – in what was the best and happiest decade of our lives. By our lives I mean both our lives – Laura’s and mine. In the ‘70s we went to school, the ‘80s were a time of messy initial negotiations with the outside world, and the ‘00s have thus far been a rerun of the ‘80s, as if one had been shunted back at the push of a button to 1981. A 20-year Groundhog Day. Ker-plunk …knocked back to the beginning, you’ve got to do it all over again.

But the ‘90s, by which I mean the period from 27 September 1992, the happiest day of our lives, to 24 October 1998, the day I was supposed to die but strangely didn’t, was when things were right (always a small “r”). Britpop coincided with it; it existed at a reasonably right time. Of course we knew we could never be part of it personally – that was underlined by the idiots scoffing at us in the lobby at the Pulp gig at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in December 1994, the same genre of idiots who would have been throwing beercans at Jarvis Cocker in Sheffield in 1984. Always outsiders, never to know the ambivalent joy of being 15 years old in 1995. We knew what to get out of it.

1994 was musically the peak year; 1995 was when everything suddenly moulded into something approaching glory; 1996 was when everything suddenly mouldered into something appearing grotty. That’s one of many millions of reasons why we could never take High Fidelity seriously; written directly before the onset of Britpop (Suede, the Auteurs and Saint Etienne are as contemporary as the references get, and one suspects Hornby never really bothered to listen to any of them), it’s exactly the kind of book which would have been written by a disillusioned, fundamentally music-hating 37-year-old failed music journalist who suddenly became the only knowingly successful music journalist. The fact that he’s still conducting his pseudo-amiable fatwa against music a decade later suggests a terrible knowledge of the crime he’s committing.

Of course, many Churchgoers will argue – and I can’t really disagree with them – that Britpop with Suede, the Auteurs and Saint Etienne at the helm would have been infinitely more mischievous, colourful and dangerous than the glum entente cordiale which eventually materialised. And let’s not forget Denim, either. And let’s not neglect the Prodigy, or the Manics, or Radiohead, or Massive Attack, none of whom ever fitted into a neat Britpop template but all of whom certainly profited from it. And let’s not deselect Pulp, or Fun*Da*Mental, or pre-hubris Goldie, or anything on Surburban Bass from 1990-94. And let’s reject the supposed decline of American music after Cobain’s death which opened a simulacrum of a floodgate for Britpop – I mean, who did they have, apart from, er, Jeff Buckley, Wu-Tang, Beck, Mercury Rev, DJ Shadow, Flaming Lips, Rocket From The Crypt, the second coming of the Beasties…?

I’ll tell you what we wanted (that shadow of 1996’s principal assassin of Britpop was deliberate); we wanted another 1981/82. We wanted pop’s “left” to infiltrate the mainstream – that bloody horse of Troy again – and play around with the rubble while execs bemusely, benignly scratched their heads. We wanted Tricky and the Dust (only occasionally Chemical) Brothers in the charts, in Smash Hits, we could hardly believe how, in the slipstream, the likes of the Aphex Twin, Stereolab and Tindersticks could routinely have top 20 or even top 10 albums, how, in the glitch holes, people finally got Portishead six months later and, wow, they were number two, and, zow, Elastica and the Boo Radleys could have number ones! And how we shaked our heads resignedly as Omni Trio, D*Note, Earthling, Bark Psychosis and Biosphere didn’t follow suit. Never mind.

You had to be in London to understand it all. We went one better; we were in London and Oxford – weekday/weekend boundaries disregarded, we moved freely between both, from the land of the Good Mixer to the ‘phone box next to the rundown deli in Park End Street where members of On A Sunday and the Jennifers – later to mutate into, respectively (and damn that respect!), Radiohead and Supergrass – habitually hung out back in a day. Back on a day when that lovely, ramshackle old burger van (the best burgers ever tasted in Oxford) used to squat outside the railway station, before the whole area was rebuilt to buggery.

And it all made an adequate sense, when it went overground. Modern Life Is Rubbish remains by far the best-realised of the Blur trilogy, still retaining its old dirty dronerock dungarees (“Oily Water”) but finding a strange old repose (“Miss America”). But at the height of Britpop I worked at Charing Cross Hospital (and as it happens, I still do) and had a flat down the road in Stamford Brook – W6 in postcode, Chiswick in all but name. So it was perhaps a unique thrill to hear lyrics about the junction of Fulham Palace Road and Greyhound Road on a million-selling album (Parklife); still more so, even on the distinctly disappointing The Great Escape, mostly recorded six doors down Goldhawk Road from me, to have my daily commute articulated as though the apocalypse could be viewed at its distant end (“He Thought Of Cars” with its slurred, stoned “Hey Jude” singalong chorus; all the voices sound deadENeD) – the solitude realised six years later.

Or a hot late summer Saturday morning in 1995, on the 27 bus from Turnham Green to Camden, the sun shining, Danny Baker on Greater London Radio playing “She’s Electric,” and just knowing that, even if a simulacrum, these were good and fitting times. Or Johnnie Walker on Radio 1 two Saturdays previously, playing “Roll With It” for the first time – “Isn’t it great to have pop music back again?” he exclaimed ecstatically. And you could have very nearly believed him at the time. Or nine idle Monday mornings previously, a dim, overcast morning; listening to Goldie’s Timeless, newly purchased on the day of release, while standing on Vauxhall Bridge Road, equidistant from MI5 and the Henry Wise Estate. And you didn’t mind Black Grape. And you didn’t bind Chris Evans. Friday lunchtimes, wandering back from Hammersmith Shopping Centre to work, stopping off at the pub across the road from the Riverside Studios, Evans loafing around, short-sleeved, with a pint, chatting with anyone who passed, feeling at the western centre of something.

It becomes sequential in its random recall. Pulp again, this time at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the Thursday before Different Class was released, but everyone knew the words to “Live Bed Show” and “I Spy” anyway; no scoffing or sneering here, a celebratory crowd and a group at its absolute socio-aesthetic peak, four years down the road from when Pulp were third on the bill under House of Love and Blue Aeroplanes at the Town and Country Club, still sorting themselves out. A feeling you cannot get from the Mo’Wax 12-inchers celebrated a couple of miles to the west in the Ladbroke/Portobello/Honest Jon’s gulag.

Knowing that Maxinquaye and Tilt upturned an already overturned cart. Not really taking any notice of dreary dour rockers like the Charlatans and the Verve when they stopped being “Verve” (that definite article forced upon them turned them from the Edgar Broughton Band pogoing within the belly of Henry Cow into – well, the Hollies). Stoned August Tuesday afternoons staggering around Maida Vale to the accompaniment of the High Llamas’ Gideon Gaye (did anyone else even appreciate the possible punctum in 15-minute flute solos?). Suede and Etienne weeping and hugging us anyway. The moment, one-third of the way through “The 2 Of Us” on Dog Man Star when you realise the transcendence of that Suede into greatness and how Anderson and Butler could only crawl away thereafter. Tiger Bay - oh, how they warned us! “Cool Kids Of Death.” And that’s what they became.

When all the ambulances started to be chased. When all the chancers plunged their unshaved arms in. That horrid realisation, after “Don’t Look Back In Anger” got to number one, that it was the autumn of 1982 again – Babylon Zoo (that grin must earn its smugness first, and not via an Arthur Baker remix), Goldbug, Reef, Octopus, Count fucking Indigo, Chris fucking Evans, Ocean Bastard Turncoats Colour Scene, FUCKING TEXAS, the Spice Girls Spectator interview (they had to come out as Tories – if they were to be the antithesis and assassins of Britpop, they had to assume the opposing colour, even though in actuality it was a case of three Southern Tories against two Northern Socialists, bless both Mels).

And then that Indian summer of 1997, where suddenly every week a new solution was proposed - OK Computer, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating…, Dig Your Own Hole, Fat Of The Land - before you realised that we were in ROCKland, not POPland, again, and that nearly all of the abovementioned tablets of stone were mostly mirages which on closer examination could hardly contain any substance within their numerous holes. A wet summer at that. Diana’s final nail in the coffin; she takes herself off the day before XFM’s due to go legit. How could anyone compete with that? “The Drugs Don’t Work” is up there with “Candle In The Bastard Two-Faced Wind” and “I Cry Crocodile Tears Over Biggie” as a pop radio weepie and NO ONE CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE because by now there isn’t one. Suddenly – ker-plunk, knocked back to 1985 by the laxity of a drunken chauffeur. Our heads are all forced into a bowing position. 6 September 1997. Four years later to the day it was as if music had been buried as well.

I can’t define Britpop, even though I lived through it. And I cannot question it because the decade was one when everything came together for a glorious and unrepeatable once. Deny it and I’m denying my own life. I can’t live there anymore; it’s unfair to both of us. It was there; it existed; she existed. Don’t let anyone, least of all yourself, tell you that there can’t be another glorious and unrepeatable once. It will be different in nature, but you will recognise it immediately.

Not saying goodbye doesn’t mean I’ll never say hello again. I leave the decade, I leave her, as it was, as she was, as we were. But she only dies when I die. Do I, can I, say goodbye to Laura? If I can’t, I might as well say goodbye to myself. And I am far more interested in saying some more hellos.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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